Energy: Power, People and Problems

Energy is a crucial part of society as we know it. Power is what gives us more efficient ways of generating heat, light and movement, so that we can live comfortably. We don’t always think about it when we are cooking dinner or watching the television or taking the bus to work, but it’s all around us.  

In this post I will showcase a number of films from our collection that celebrate advances in energy technology and the people behind the generation. Some of these films are very much of their time, considering our present day circumstances and how we view or consume energy. 

Early Energy: Fossil Fuels 

Oil and Coal were seen as easy wins - they are energy sources that can be extracted and transported easily with the correct equipment, and then processed in innovative and cost-effective ways through power stations to bring gas and electricity to the consumers. Before the technology was widely available to try renewable sources, fossil fuels like these were the best way to generate large amounts of fuel for transport as well as electricity in one location. 

Oil refineries are process plants for transforming petroleum/crude oil into useful energy products such as gasoline. This film shows the construction of Teesport Refinery, which was commissioned in 1964 and ceased operations in 1989:  


Coal has been used in numerous ways to generate energy. One of these ways is to create coke oven gas, which is useful as fuel in furnaces, particularly for blacksmithing and other steelworks in industrial Britain. Take a look at the activities at the Monkton Coke Works, built in 1936 by John Bowes and Partner Ltd, in response to the Jarrow Hunger March of 1932. Not only was the plant processing coal, but it also created many jobs during a time of mass unemployment. As celebrated by the National Coal Board (who took on the coke works after nationalisation of the mining industry in 1947), from an industrial perspective this plant was a success of its time until closure in 1990.


Coal and Community

As aforementioned, coal has been a useful source of energy for all of our electrical and fuel needs, but over the years it has had other positive aspects, particularly for miners. Not only did the coal mines create so many jobs, but the mining industry was also very much a mining community. It was common for areas surrounding the mines to be ‘mining towns’ which housed the miners and their families; neighbours all knew each other from the workplace, in the same way factory or mill workers did over the years too. 

These films show just how much the coal mines meant to the employees - going to work felt more like spending time with family rather than simply doing a job.

‘Methodism and the Miner’ explores the role of the Methodist Church within the daily lives of the religious mining communities.

‘Manvers May Day Parade’ shows the celebrations of the miners and their families on May Day at Manvers Main Colliery in Mexborough, which again illustrates just how much the community aspect of coal mattered just as much as the commercial. 


Around the time this next film was made (1982), there were high hopes for the future of coal. Gas and oil reserves were being used up rapidly, and it seemed like there would be a demand for coal, of which we had seemed to have great quantities of. On a commercial level, this still seemed like one of the best forms of energy for the UK economically, and a big new mining development was underway in Selby (following closures of other mines over the years), which would create 4,000 new jobs, typically for the men. However, unemployment was a struggle for the miners’ wives, who had given up jobs to move to Selby, so it was sometimes difficult to integrate into the mining community. 


The closure of the mines in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by Thatcher’s closure of the mines in 1984/85, is still talked about today, due to the strong and almost militant union action by the miners and their representatives, to fight for their workers' rights and their communities. Working class people came together to support each other in a time of personal crisis. 

Here you’ll see an example in 1963 Northumberland, as workers fought against the closure of Blackhill Colliery, but unfortunately were defeated and the closure went ahead. Instead of letting it get them down, they decided to come together and try to open a private drift mine at Allerdean instead!


Despite the famed mine closures and the strikes of 1984/85, the new Selby coalfield wasn’t threatened, and was continuing its development to create new jobs and advancements in coal mining technology. In fact, the closures were a result of balancing finances to make way for pits such as this one, so that the coal industry would turn a bigger profit, without much thought for the workers. There were still struggles of miners fitting into the local society in Selby, with women’s jobs continuing to be scarce, no family-orientated pits, and not much nightlife to enjoy after work.

Despite other concerns for the nearby land from some individuals such as local farmers, it was argued by representatives that measures were in place for drainage, and also for ‘cleaner coal’. The miners here might have had secure jobs, but they stood in solidarity with their striking peers from other mines (1984).


Open-cast coal mines became popular as a means of efficiency. Large equipment and machinery could be used to extract large quantities of coal at a time without the restrictions of underground coal mines, which meant they were more economically viable as a supply for power stations. This film records the operation of the UK’s largest dragline system at the time, known as 'Big Geordie,' at the Radar North opencast mine site in 1971. It paints open-cast mining in a positive light, including the way in which the land is restored afterwards to be used for farming. 


Despite the economic value, open-cast mining can have detrimental effects on the environment, such as erosion, pollution, deforestation and habitat loss. Despite the restoration of the land after use of the mine, the initial impact of disturbing the land is still of concern. The financial efficiency by the use of specialist machinery also means there are less jobs available for traditional miners. This film outlines these controversies, with views from a range of people including environmentalists, miners, support groups and residents. 


The Age of Electricity

Electricity, in the grand scheme of things, is still in its infancy. There’s debate over who ‘invented’ electricity as a power source, but it is generally accepted that Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to ‘discover’ it when he found that sparks emitted from lightning strikes actually generated electricity. Thomas Edison is regarded as a contributor to the invention of the lightbulb in 1879, which was a huge breakthrough in how people then used electricity going forward.

It started out with electricity lighting the streets and replacing gas lamps; by the time the UK National Grid was born in 1935 following the Electricity (supply) Act of 1928 and the establishment of the Central Electricity Board, around ⅔ of households were now using electricity, particularly for lighting. This number only continued to grow. 

With the newer Electricity Act of 1947, 625 electricity companies merged to create regional electricity boards under the British Electricity Authority (Central Electricity Authority in 1955), as the electricity industry was nationalised.

A lot of the electricity boards not only managed the electrical supply with links to the power stations, but they also promoted and sold electrical products in showrooms, such as washing machines, ovens, heaters and vacuum cleaners. Take a look at this film from the North Eastern Electricity Board which details the operations of the board (and its partners) whilst promoting the usefulness of electricity in the home and in businesses - nowadays having most of these electrical items in houses seems very much the norm!


With the Electricity Act of 1957, the authority was dissolved to make way for the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB). This was the case until privatisation in the 1990s, and the board was officially dissolved in 2001.

This film shows lots of the responsibilities held by the CEGB, but more importantly the people actually carrying out the work. Behind every switch we flick, there’s someone who worked hard as part of a dedicated team to get energy supplies directly to us. The CEGB had over 131,000 employees in all different departments, who would have had a very different relationship with energy behind the scenes compared to regular consumers.


Forward Thinking - Technology & Times of Change

Fossil fuels may have such a great impact on the community, particularly for miners, and also the electricity industry, but in reality we now know some of the negative impacts on the Earth when used for energy. This is primarily from the air pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases caused from burning coal or oil, which affects global warming/climate change quite drastically as well as people’s health, but also there’s the destruction of landscape and wildlife when collecting these resources in the first place.

These are also nonrenewable sources, meaning they will not last forever; it’s argued in a contemporary society we now need to find a way of using renewable sources so that we can continue into the future with power, heat and light in our homes in a safe and greener way. 

Luckily, this way of thinking has been in effect for many years already, it’s just about acting on it. For example, Edmond Becquerel discovered the ‘photovoltaic effect’ in 1839 which we have used in the development of solar energy methods, and James Blyth created the first electricity-generated windmill way back in 1887 (eventually leading to the technology for modern wind turbines). Making the change to renewable energy however is not always easy or cost-effective, which is why these sources have not been in the mainstream until much more recent years.

These films explore our journey when tackling energy-related issues. We don’t always get things right, and trial-and-error methods are often the case in this line of research. 

The Clean Air Act of 1956 was a huge step in addressing environmental issues at the time, in response to ‘London’s Great Smog’ of 1952. The main purpose of the Act was to control smoke and sulphur dioxide levels caused by the burning of coal, in order to minimise air pollution. These films outline the risks of the smoke in urban areas, as well as the benefits of electricity, and how both the Clean Air Act requirements and the improvements of industrial plant machinery would hopefully shape a better, cleaner future. 


Waste is another problem affecting the environment, particularly in relation to overflowing landfill sites and pollution. Now, recycling is the norm and there are various means of waste disposal, but there are unfortunately still a lot of issues. These films show how we have worked on solving two problems at the same time - by recycling waste or low-grade materials AND using it for fuel to keep energy costs down and the by-products of burning fuel cleaner.


The way in which we’ve traditionally generated energy has had many advantages. However, our concerns have grown over the years for energy-related issues such as climate change/environmental damage, political disputes, energy inefficiency, and the cost of living crisis.

This Tyne Tees Television episode of Briefing, titled “Energy”, explores a lot of matters tht were important in 1982 (including trials for new forms of renewable energy such as wind farms), but the topics are still very relevant to our experiences today.


Energy, Activism & the Future

So, clearly it’s no secret that the energy we generate and consume continues to have an impact on our world, in some ways worse than others. Many campaigns have taken place, policies have been amended, and new technologies have been developed to help us tackle climate change and other environmental issues which are largely down to human interference with our planet. As it stands, one of the driving forces of conversations about our future largely comes down to activism. Large organisations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, The Climate Coalition, Just Stop Oil and The Green Party are well-recognised nationally for shouting about such things, but many local groups (which could be anything from politics to arts organisations) are now also focussing on these topics too.

Activism and protest is often captured on film, particularly for journalistic purposes. Keep an eye on our Nature Matters page to find out more about activism and our relationship with nature!